A guide to the violent unrest in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan region
Uzbekistan has been rocked by its largest protest in nearly two decades. What happened – and who’s to blame?
The biggest protests to happen in Uzbekistan since 2005 broke out on 1 July, leaving 21 dead and 243 injured, according to official sources.
The unrest occurred in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, which makes up 40% of Uzbekistan’s territory. The Uzbek authorities claimed that “forces from abroad” were behind the clashes, which arose in response to changes to the country’s constitution that would have reduced Karakalpakstan’s autonomy. But experts point to the region’s poor socio-economic and environmental situation as the driving force behind the protests.
The violence in Karakalpakstan, and its aftermath, were shrouded in secrecy thanks to an internet shutdown. The unrest comes at a time when Uzbekistan has been telling its citizens – and the international community – that the government is shaking off its authoritarian past. Indeed, the constitutional reform was presented to the Uzbek public as part of this move towards modernisation.
How did the unrest start? Are the Uzbek authorities right to claim the demonstrations were planned with the help of outside forces? Does Karakalpakstan really want to secede from Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s breadbasket? Here’s what you need to know.
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What and where is Karakalpakstan?
Karakalpakstan is an autonomous region in north-western Uzbekistan, which has a population of just under two million. Karakalpaks are of a different ethnicity to Uzbeks, and speak a language closer to Kazakh, although Uzbek is also spoken in the province.
During its years in the former Soviet Union, Karakalpakstan was part of different constituent autonomous republics, first Soviet Kyrgyzstan, and then Kazakhstan. From 1936, it became part of Soviet Uzbekistan, but declared independence in 1990, before other Soviet regions. It became part of Uzbekistan in 1993, but this was for a planned 20-year period, after which Karakalpakstan would be granted the right to hold a referendum on seceding from Uzbekistan. This right was enshrined in the constitution of Uzbekistan.
The Russian media refers to Karakalpakstan as ‘Karakalpakia’, a term that has colonial undertones as it suggests a territory rather than a country. Today, the region is perhaps best known for the Savitsky museum in Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital, which has the world’s second-largest collection of Russian avant-garde art.
Karakalpakstan faces more serious problems than other parts of Uzbekistan. The region has the highest poverty rate in the country, at 16.4%. According to the state statistics service of Uzbekistan, the average monthly wage is less than $400 – half the wage in neighbouring Kazakhstan. As a result, around 20% of Karakalpakstan’s inhabitants rely on the wages of family members who have gone abroad to work, in Kazakhstan or Russia.
Access to water is another acute problem. Often, water sources are far from houses or water mains are worn out, meaning people either have no water or poor-quality water. Overall, less than 60% of the population has access to drinking water at home and only 15% of Karakalpak homes are connected to the municipal sewage network.
The region also has the highest maternal mortality rate in Uzbekistan, as well as a low birth rate, the highest rate of respiratory diseases, and a higher likelihood of a person suffering from cancer.
How did the protests start?
Clearly, there are many reasons for the people of Karakalpakstan to be discontented. But, despite reports from some foreign media outlets about the popularity of separatist sentiment, public discussion in the region has more often focused on the need to improve dire living conditions than a desire for independence from Uzbekistan.
However, in June this year, Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev proposed amendments to the constitution, which, among other things, withdrew the right of Karakalpaks to secede. The description of Karakalpakstan as ‘sovereign’ was also removed from the draft. The plan was to put these changes to a public vote via referendum.
A popular Uzbek news site drew attention to the proposals, with columnist Komil Jalilov writing critically about the potential implications. This article, which was later removed, became the starting point for mass unrest. Although most of the Uzbek press – which is under tight control – ignored the issue, the column was covered by a few media outlets, including the BBC’s Uzbek service and Hook.report.
Within weeks, Karakalpaks were engaged in lively social media discussion about the proposed changes, with two local journalists – Lalagul Kallykhanova and Dauletmurat Tazhimuratov – publicly calling for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum.
In an audio recording that was widely shared on social media, Tazhimuratov said that if the amendments were approved, he would “personally [go] to a peaceful and legal rally” to demand a referendum on secession from Uzbekistan.
Towards the end of June, internet and mobile connectivity started to suffer in Karakalpakstan, and there were noticeably more police officers on the streets. Mobile phone operators blamed the patchy network coverage on the abnormal heat.
The trigger for the protests was the detention of Tazhimuratov on 1 July, after he called on people to attend a peaceful rally in Nukus on 5 July. According to eyewitnesses who chose to remain anonymous, there were signs of forced entry and traces of blood outside Tazhimuratov’s house.
Later that evening, a large crowd gathered near the town bazaar demanding the journalist’s release. The Karakalpak Ministry of Internal Affairs sent rapid reaction units to the city, but they did not – initially – use force against the protesters. Tazhimuratov was released the same day (1 July) after Murat Kamalov, the chairman of Karakalpakstan’s legislative council, the Jokargy Kenes, arrived at the rally.
It seemed the crowd would disperse but when it didn’t, the security forces began to use rubber bullets, water cannons and tear gas against the protesters. The internet was shut down at roughly the same time. The protesters eventually left, but in the early hours of 2 July, Tazhimuratov was detained once again and taken to an unknown location.
Shortly afterwards, the crowd began to gather again, this time near the market. The rapid reaction units used batons, water cannons and stun grenades against the demonstrators. People were lined up and put into police vans. Some were taken to the police station. Checkpoints were installed around Nukus, and Karakalpakstan’s border with Kazakhstan was indefinitely closed.
By 5pm, people from across Karakalpakstan had flocked to Nukus to join the protesters, and both the president and prime minister of Uzbekistan had arrived in the city. President Mirziyoyev addressed Karakalpaks directly, saying he would drop the proposed constitutional amendments. But with internet access restricted, many people did not initially find out about the Uzbek president’s promise, and the rallies did not end until the following day. A state of emergency, including a curfew, was then introduced.
According to the authorities, during the three days of protest, 21 people died, four of whom were military personnel. Some 243 were injured and 516 were detained. The same source reported that another 58 were detained in the period after the protests ended, when the curfew was still in effect, 28 of whom were prosecuted for breaking the curfew restrictions.
Who is to blame for the protests?
Adopting a strategy that has been used by the Kazakhstani and Belarusian governments, Uzbek officials blamed “forces from abroad” for the unrest, claiming it was an attempt to undermine constitutional order in Uzbekistan. President Mirziyoyev said the unrest had been planned for years by “hostile forces”, but offered no further clarification as to who these forces are. Protesters were also accused by authorities of being under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
Tazhimuratov has been charged, but the charge hasn’t been made public. Kallykhanova, the other local journalist, is said to have also been detained on 1 July for “endangering the constitutional order”. The journalists’ whereabouts are still unknown and officials have refused to comment on their cases.
So, was separatism the main cause of the unrest in Karakalpakstan?
International relations specialist Yuriy Sarukhanyan believes the blame lies with the Uzbek government, due to the proposed constitutional changes. He says the mass protests erupted because of Uzbekistan’s lack of dialogue with the residents of Karakalpakstan and claims the government “created problems where there were none”.
Uzbek political scientist Rafael Sattarov says the unrest reflected three of Karakalpakstan’s most pressing problems: unemployment, lack of water and rising prices. Even if separatist aspirations are not strong at the moment, they will only grow if these problems are not addressed, he said.
“Respect [for the government] must be earned, not imposed,” Sattarov said. “You can do anything by force, but what's the point?”
He added: “Fears that Karakalpaks may secede from Uzbekistan are at least strongly exaggerated. If you think about it, renewed calls for secession only came at a time when people were completely indignant at what was happening in their republic and weren’t show[n] any understanding from [the Uzbek] parliament.
“Instead of listening to their claims, both governments proclaimed that the situation was created from the outside, that the protesting [were] drug addicts, and the separatists to blame for everything,” Sattarov said.
What will happen next?
On 20 July, the Karakalpak legislature asked the Uzbek president to lift the state of emergency in the province. Gazeta.uz and Repost.uz also noted that the legislature had requested a pardon for “innocent” young people suspected of participating in the protests. But this request for leniency later disappeared.
The curfew and state of emergency were finally lifted on 21 July. The consultation period for constitutional reform was closed on 1 August. Earlier, President Mirziyoyev stated that the changes to Karakalpakstan’s status would be removed.
Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry has acknowledged the state had restricted internet access in Karakalpakstan but claimed this was necessary to prevent the spread of fake news. Internet connectivity reportedly remains spotty in the province.
According to Hook.report, mass detentions continue in Karakalpakstan and its internal affairs ministry is using drone footage to identify those who participated in the protests. The outlet also says that detainees are kept in temporary detention facilities and most have been charged with “violation of the order of holding meetings, rallies, street marches or demonstrations”. Some detainees have said they were beaten and humiliated while in detention.
Despite assurances from the authorities, local sources say the people of Nukus and other Karakalpak cities continue to live in fear of reprisals.
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